What do you do when you find out you are dying?
Alexander Lepetuhin, a successful Russian artist, was 52 years old when he discovered that he had a serious pancreatic disease. It was accompanied by acute, consistent and almost unbearable, pain. Soon, a malignant tumor developed. For months, he lived from hospital to hospital, from operating room to operating room.
During one of his visits to the ER, Alexander was told conclusively that he had four years to live, maybe, if he was lucky – eight. Then and there, he gave an oath: his artistic talent would now speak only of matters of faith.
In his own words:
“Fine, I decided. Then all that time I will spend drawing Christ and his apostles.”
Moderate success in the art arena had smiled on him throughout most of his life. As a child, he joined a drawing club in his hometown, Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, and found himself under the guidance of a talented teacher, who had been personally trained by the renown Russian landscape artist Konstantin Korovin (See examples of Korovin’s work here).
He went on to finish college as a Fine Arts major, become a member of the illustrious Union of Russian Artists and teach as a professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the Khabarovsk University. His personal art exhibits appeared all over Russia and travelled to Germany.
The Way of the Artist
Alexander’s coming to the faith, like that of a fellow artist, Pavel Ryzhenko, came later in his life. It was a long, conscious, arduous process, but when the transition happened, it was complete and irrevocable, changing the trajectory of his artistic path.
Alexander had turned 50. It was the fall of 1998, towards the end of the Wild 90s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a void. An absence of a cohesive political, economic or social structure resulted in a period of chaotic experimentation and almost complete lawlessness in Russia.
In the 1990s, all doors seemed to stand wide open but there was no longer any stable ground under the feet. A barrage of new ideas and melodies surged into the huge, suddenly half-lost nation.
And amid economic crisis, social upheaval, and political confusion, what many Russians were desperately searching for was a spirituality that ‘worked.’
Like many of his contemporaries, Alexander dabbled in Eastern religions and philosophies. In his search for a faith, he visited various Christian clubs and churches. Eventually, though, his internal compass pointed him back to his roots. He decided on Orthodoxy.
In his own words:
The real changes in me began when the Powerful Force grabbed me by the collar and brought me to the church to be baptized. The pull was so acute that I all but ran. I was baptized and immediately found myself in a miracle. I saw the whole world, threaded with light and full of love”
How do you preach without preaching?
Baptism didn’t really change Alexander’s life worldly and social life. He never experienced the desire to become a monk or priest. Nor did he attempt to paint icons.
His friend group, also, remained the same, comprised the typical milieu that surrounds artists and intellectual: sceptics and thinkers, most often agnostics and atheists.
He was animated and fiery in his defense of Christianity. But he never offended anyone; most importantly, he was adamant about never imposing his ideas or belief on anyone’s free will.
He said in one of his interviews:
“In essence, all that I am trying to do in these last years in my art is to speak of Christianity beyond the walls of the church. My mission is to find form, give life to the form. Against the image, it is impossible to argue logically. It enters straight into the soul, into the subconscious.”
The Path of the Christian
And, so, the cycle of about 1000 Paintings was born. Alexander called it ‘the Path’ as it literally pictures the path of Christ and the Apostles.
More than anything, it is a contemplation and exploration of a path, the Path. A search for an idea, a throbbing question of how to follow Christ…how hard, how beautiful, how incessant that search must have been and always will be, both for the famous fishermen and modern men and women.
instructing the Apostles
The exact quantity of the paintings are in the series has not yet been established, but it’s about 1000 pieces, carried out in different techniques and styles. Alexander’s art doesn’t seek to retell or illustrate the Bible; he makes no attempt to be realistic.
The author avoids details that would distract from the core idea of the scene. His artistic language is strict and laconic, unusually expressive in its simplicity.
The story told in the paintings is always very straightforward. The disciples follow Christ throughout the Holy Land. The landscapes, interiors, the crowd in the background change, but the main spotlight remains on Christ and the future apostles.
With time, the series included the classical evangelical scenes such as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and the miracle on Lake Tiberias. But even the most familiar scenes become strange, acuter and yet more transcendent in Alexander’s simplistic and minimalist rendering.
Stripped down to the bare basics, his images are driven try to recreate the atmosphere of a particular scenario, the emotion it inspired in primary actors of the human – and divine – drama. Perhaps it was for that reason that Alexander would often redraw a particular scene in different styles, trying to find the one best suited to reveal the substance of the moment.
Art, colours, shapes and textures, for Alexander, seem to have been tools, almost arbitrary ones, that he used to find the truth he was trying to grasp, one that lay beyond reality and earth. It was what he was looking for in life and beyond it.
“If he’s alive he has everything in his power! Whose fault is it he doesn’t understand that”
So bitterly proclaims a character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a young man who struggles to accept this terminal illness and impending death. As anyone who is faced with this ultimate question, he wobbles between waging war with the universe and accepting the fact that his path leads him towards God.
If anyone took advantage of his time to live, despite a palpable countdown, it was Alexander.
Alexander Lepetuhin lived not eight years, as the doctors promised, but twice that.
During that time he visited Israel, Hong Kong, Greece (including Mount Athos), wrote several books that were translated into English and Japanese.
His book of children’s stories received a national literary prize called the P.Ershov, as well as awards from book fairs in Moscow and Vladivostok. Before he died, he was also working on co-authoring a collection of Christian stories for adults with his priest. The book was to be called Agape, the Greek word for Love.
He also held a series of solo exhibitions and lived to see not only his children grow up, but also his grandchildren.
He passed away on the evening on July 11, 2016, on the eve of the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.